Addiction Can Get Anyone

Recently Tiger Woods, for the first time, made me feel bad for him. Never have I had a hint of sorrow for him in the past. As his life was crumbling around him and his wife and golf game left him, I felt like he deserved it for not living up to the squeaky clean image he always portrayed. Then, when I heard he had been arrested for DUI, my first reaction was….good. He’s a bum.

A couple days later, as the smoke cleared, I found out he wasn’t under the influence of alcohol, but what appeared to be painkillers. I don’t condone the fact that he was out driving around high on anything, but hearing he was on painkillers gave me pause. As a person that deals with back pain every day because of the athlete I used to be, I can understand how someone can get hooked.  

In May, I went to my annual college football alumni golf outing. At the outing, we did what we normally do. We talked about how good we used to be, had a couple too many drinks and played some terrible golf. But this year I heard something I didn’t expect. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because my closest friends are around 40 now, but several of my buddies have been dealing with addiction in one way or another for a long time. Much of it stems from the early start they got by trying to make it through season after season of pounding on their bodies.

I can only speak for myself when I say this, but I believe the mindset of an athlete that plays at a high level is: “just get me on the field, I’ll worry about the pain later.” This attitude can cause people to take dangerous steps leading to dire consequences in the future, but I don’t think it’s unique to the people I know. I also know the macho mindset of most athletes is they can take on the world themselves and they don’t need help. This is also a slippery slope when it comes to chemical addiction.  

Dave Gove
Dave Gove (Former WMU Hockey Standout)

Of the stories I heard at the outing, one was the most shocking of all. I learned a fellow athlete from Western, from the era when I was playing ball, died of a heroin overdose earlier this year. His name was Dave Gove and he was an outstanding hockey player. Dave was a buddy of mine. We weren’t close, but we ran with the same crowds and frequented the same establishments while we were in college. We hadn’t stayed in touch after graduation as he continued his hockey career, but what I did know of him was that he was a great guy. From what I witnessed, he was a straight arrow and always had a smile on his face. When I heard the news of his death, I couldn’t believe it. Dave was not the guy you would ever expect something like an overdose to happen to.

It’s hard for me to imagine a guy that made it to the top of his profession could struggle with addiction to the extent he would die. It’s hard for me to imagine a person my age overdosed on heroin. And it’s even harder for me to imagine how challenging living with an addiction must be.

I’ve had family members succumb to addiction and their stories seemed to make sense to me, as odd as it sounds. But when I see athletes and former athletes struggle with demons, my assumption isn’t likely dissimilar to theirs. I believe they can beat it. They’re used to winning and beating the odds. They’ve been doing it their entire lives. Unfortunately, they don’t always pull through.

I’ve thought about Dave a lot since the outing. His story is all too common. If there is anything good that can come of it, I hope someone sees it and is inspired to get help when they need it. Dave had a lot of people who cared about him. And I’m guessing that’s the case with most addiction stories.

The idea of my blog is to relate to people that played sports but also to provide young folks a resource for what life can be like after sports end. Hopefully, anyone reading this heavy message can take a moment to understand how serious addiction and drug use can be. We don’t need to ever lose another one like Dave. Rest in peace Bronco Brother. 

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Athletes Will Break Your Heart.

Be smart. That’s a line athletes hear from coaches over and over again. Coaches don’t say it because they think athletes are dumb. They say it because they’re older, and in many cases, wiser. Don’t get me wrong. Some coaches are idiots. But many of them understand the temptation for an athlete to do something stupid and want to do everything they can to make sure players stay out of trouble and eligible. Whatever their motivation, amateur coaches depend on players staying in the game.  

Once an athlete crosses into professional status, they’re on their own. Many pro athletes have too much money and time on their hands, but they’re also adults. Sure, some of them weren’t raised correctly and have no understanding of consequences, but we as a society don’t tend to feel as badly for them when they make a mistake. Maybe I’m speaking for myself, but when a pro messes up, I actually hope they get burned. ARodFor example, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t lose any sleep if A-Rod woke up tomorrow without a dime to his name. He’s a disgrace.

I almost wrote this blog last year just after J.T. Barrett was arrested for drunk driving. I remember waking up, hearing the news and thinking to myself, how could he do that to his teammates? He’s one of the best players in the country and everyone is watching him. What was he thinking? The Buckeyes didn’t have a game the week it happened yet all the analysts on Gameday could talk about was J.T.’s arrest. It was awful to watch and fortunately no one was hurt in the process, but it was another mark on athletes in general and an Ohio State program that has a coach with a history of players getting into trouble.

I do have to take a step back and remember everyone makes mistakes. This is not a holier than thou post. I wasn’t an angel in college and many of my teammates weren’t either. We had our share of run-ins with authority and many of the instances could have been much worse than they were. Luckily, nothing “major” ever happened.

Unfortunately, when something major does happen it’s too late to take it back. After an amazing story a couple weeks ago about my Broncos and a surprise from Sly Stallone, another story broke on Saturday about two young men on the WMU football team under arrest for armed robbery. Let me write that again….ARMED ROBBERY! This was the story of two 18-year-old young men breaking into a home and robbing an innocent victim at gunpoint. This wasn’t story about a fight getting out of hand or a story about a player drinking too much. This was a story about multiple felony counts wrapped into one.  

When I heard the news, I almost couldn’t believe it. Again, I was thinking to myself, what went wrong here? How could these two young men have made a decision like this to go into a person’s home with a gun and rob her? Why do they have a gun in the first place? I don’t know their background. I have no idea what their socioeconomic status is. We could debate the details for days. What I do know is they were given the opportunity to go to school on a full scholarship, earn a college degree and play a game they loved. They took an amazing opportunity and flushed it in just a few moments on Friday night. Sure, the courts say innocent until proven guilty, but all signs point to guilty in this particular instance. I don’t believe I’m jumping to conclusions here.   

Every freshman enters their first camp and has the opportunity to start fresh. I can say this specifically about WMU because I went there and know the people in charge of both athletics and academics. Sure, not every student-athlete is a great student, but every student-athlete on scholarship is offered the same resources as the next. This was their shot to make a way for themselves and they decided to go out after camp broke and rob someone at gunpoint. These two young men went from preparing for the biggest football season of their lives to facing LIFE in prison. A bigger turn of events I couldn’t imagine.

I don’t feel particularly bad for them because they made a choice. They know right from wrong. They messed up and deserve to face the consequences of their actions. I’m heartbroken. I’m sad they threw away an opportunity many others would do anything for. I’m sad they let their teammates, fans and families down. I’m sad two very talented young men didn’t listen to their coaches and do the right thing. I’m sad a young woman had to be put through the terrible ordeal of having her life threatened in her own home. I’m just sad. I hope all involved can learn from this terrible incident and move forward in a positive way.

While at Western, our Coach, Gary Darnell, had many sayings. Some of them stuck and some didn’t. But one that stuck very well was, “Short-term decisions lead to long-term consequences.” If there were ever a situation where the saying was more spot on, I haven’t seen it yet. Those two young men made a very short term decision and the consequences are going to be dire.  

I’ll be at the opener this weekend when the Broncos take on Northwestern and I’ll be cheering for the team as I always do. I’ll have my two-year-old with me at a game for the first time. As he grows up, I’ll be sure to tell him what so many coaches and my father always told me, be smart.

 

    

Education Regret

Education Regret

I had the great fortune of sitting down with my college head football coach, Gary Darnell, and his lovely wife Mrs. Darnell (Sandra) this month while I was on a business trip to Austin, Texas. He’s no longer actively coaching, but is still heavily involved with college football as the Associate Executive Director of the AFCA

Coach and Mrs. D

Seeing them brought back great memories. We sat at their beautiful Austin loft, talked about the past and I gave them a rundown of several of the guys I stay in close touch with. It was obvious Coach was proud to hear about former players doing well.

Coach Darnell is one of those old school guys that takes it to heart when he assumes the responsibility of helping shape a young man’s life; and while we didn’t spend a ton of time with him on X’s and O’s while in college (because we spent most of our time with the strength coaches, trainers and position coaches), he was definitely engaged with the players on the team. He made that pretty clear when I got into a little off-the-field trouble my freshman year…hey, even good guys get into a trouble from time to time. 🙂

While talking to Coach and his better half about where my life has taken me, I mentioned my decision to go back to grad school and why I did it. Much of why I went back had to do with my desire to learn. This was a desire I didn’t have too much of during my undergrad at Western. While there, my educational goals were simple: do well in my classes so I could get good grades, stay eligible and get a great job after college. I was very successful at achieving those goals. The problem was I should have been in school to get an education and learn. Don’t get me wrong. I learned plenty at Western, but it was a byproduct of reaching my main goals. When I described this to Coach Darnell, I heard him chuckle a bit, like he knew what I was talking about, but he didn’t elaborate.

Later in the evening, after we finished some amazing Austin barbecue, I brought up the this blog and how I try to reach athletes everywhere and help them understand how the lights are going to go out someday. It was then Coach Darnell elaborated further on his earlier chuckle.

Coach had an uncanny way of coming up with sayings from time to time that stuck with me. My favorite to this point in my life had been, “It’s better to be five minutes early than one second late.” He wasn’t a fan of people being late. I’m not either. When people are late for meetings, calls or events, it’s a blatant disrespect for other people’s time…I digress. Then, he unleashed a new one I’m sure I’ll remember forever. He said, “Jake, I don’t have a lot of regrets in life, but I do have one big one. My regret is I left school with a degree, and not an education.” I didn’t even have to ask him what he meant. I knew exactly how he felt. I asked him if I could use the quote in a blog and he said, “absolutely.”

Coach Darnell has gotten a long way in life and has been extremely successful. It’s interesting to hear a man having been on some of the biggest collegiate stages in the country make the statement he did, but I wasn’t too surprised. It just helped reinforce what I already believe. Many athletes, while good students, don’t have a grasp of what the real opportunity is while in college.

I’m sure his sentiment isn’t isolated to athletes. Much of college is lost on young people due to lack of context about it’s application in the real world.  But I’m also sure it hits home with many of us that focused so much on the sport we played. Looking back now, I sometimes feel a college education should come later in life, after more experience. We spend so much money, time and energy before many of us realize how important an education really is. The good news is, we can always go back; and I couldn’t be more happy I did.

Thanks again, Coach D.

Physical Pain – Is It Worth It?

In July of 2002, I stepped into a squat rack for my final strength test before my senior football season at WMU. When I got to the bottom of the squat and began coming back up, I felt a pinch in the middle of my back. Nearly 14 years later, three back specialists, multiple MRIs and x-rays, two chiropractors, and two physical therapists, the pain still exists. Does that suck? Absolutely. Is that part of the deal with athletics? Unfortunately for some, including me, it is. Does it give me an excuse for why I’m terrible at golf? Definitely. 🙂imgres

Prior to that injury, I’d spent thousands of hours in the weight room. I worked hard to keep good form most of the time and when I got hurt that day, I figured it was temporary, like so many other injuries I sustained in my athletic career. I was fortunate enough to never have an injury knock me out of the game for good and the back injury was no different. I was able to play my entire senior season, even though I was only playing in games (not practicing much) by the end of that year.

Injuries are part of the games we play. When I connect with former athletes, it’s a rarity not to get into a conversation about an injury they sustained while playing. Many of them didn’t have issues until they got older. Nevertheless, the injuries linger and seem to catch us all eventually.

I was fortunate to earn an athletic scholarship to college, but I often joke with people that didn’t play in college, when they finish paying their student loans, athletes start paying for our education with our bodies.

People regularly ask me a couple questions:

  1. Was it worth it?
  2. Will I let my son play football?

For the first question, the answer is simple. It was absolutely worth it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without football. It amplified my sense of discipline, teamwork and work ethic driving me today. When “regular” students were opening a beer at 1:30 in the afternoon or finishing their final class of the day around 2 P.M. I was leaving for practice every day or waking up at 5:00 A.M. for morning workouts in the dead of winter. There was no calling in sick. There was no sleeping in. There were no days off.

Did I have some privileges afforded to me that non-athletes didn’t have? For sure. Being on the football team had its benefits, many of which I’ll write about on my blog. But it was a lot of work; and while I still endure the back pain I sustained while playing, I benefit from the experience and lessons football taught me.

The second question isn’t so simple. My son is a different person than me. He’ll see the world through his own eyes. What was right for me may not be right for him. If he’s the type of person that lives to compete and play, it’s worth the conversation, but there’s no definitive answer at this point. He’s only a year old.

One of the many things I’m fond of about my parents is they didn’t force me to play sports. They did force me to be involved and sports happened to be what I loved to do. As my son gets older, we’ll see what he has an affinity for. One thing I do know, just as my parents pushed me to be the best I could be, I’ll push him as well. No sitting around for that young man.

Back pain is something I will continue to work on and hopefully be able to keep in check. A couple weeks ago I couldn’t get out of bed Monday or Tuesday morning, but like all those cold winter mornings when I was waking up at 5:00 am to go run myself into the ground, I had to figure it out and find a way to get up. There really is no other choice.

It’s Go Time! Life After the Lights Begins Today.

My name is Jake Gasaway. That’s me in the above photo, the little face in the middle of an empty Waldo Stadium. If you’ve ever sat in an empty stadium as an athlete, or even if you weren’t an athlete, you’ve likely dreamt about playing in front of a huge crowd that cheered you on for the game winner. What most of us never gave much thought to was that one day we’d actually have to go to work and the cheers would come to an end. Is that a sad thought? Maybe, but it’s reality.

As an athlete you know all too well about reality. You win some. You lose some. You learn. You work your ass off and keep moving forward. There’s no time to rest on that last victory or sulk about the most recent defeat. That’s one of the best recipes for life one could concoct.

Until I was 23 years old, my entire life revolved around athletics. I was fortunate enough to earn a D-1 football scholarship (less than 2% of high school football players earn an athletic scholarship of any kind) to Western Michigan University

Western at Michigan - 2002
Western at Michigan – 2002

where my athletic compulsion continued, and perhaps even worsened. Then one day my senior year ended and it was all over, just like that. In 2002, the lights went out in the stadium for good.

Even though I was a Senior Captain and Center on the football team, I had a decent idea I wouldn’t go pro since only 1.6% of college football players get drafted; not to mention I was undersized and slow as hell. Luckily I focused enough on my schoolwork and preparing between games, practices and workouts to secure a great job right out of school with a Fortune 500 company (Philip Morris U.S.A.). Since joining Philip Morris, earning my M.B.A and co-founding a startup, I’ve acquired a real education about corporate America, startups, and now fatherhood.

I’m a long way from the locker room and wish I knew then what I know now. Don’t get me wrong, I wish we could all play forever, but the fact is, no matter which level you make it to in athletics, it will come to an end. Thinking about that a little bit can go a long way, which is the purpose of this blog. I want to share my unique perspective as a former athlete that has been successful in corporate America as well as my own startup (Stitch Labs) in Silicon Valley. I’m still new to this fatherhood thing, but hopefully I’ll do ok there, too. What makes me qualified to write about this topic? Subscribe and hopefully you’ll find out soon enough.

Everyone should have a resource to be able to ask questions about how life will change when athletics are in the rear view, and the web makes it easier than ever to do so. Please join the discussion as I talk about everything from the early, and sometimes privileged life of an athlete, to getting that first job, to knowing when to take a risk. I don’t know it all, so feel free to jump in and help me out….even if that means babysitting. This kid is tougher than football ever was. 🙂

Life is pretty busy at the moment with a startup, marriage and fatherhood, so I won’t be writing every day, but I’m committing to this because I see a need in the athletic community for perspective about life after the lights. If there’s something you’re interested in reading about, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll get back at you. Thanks for reading this first post and I hope to see you again on the interwebs.